Total Depravity – Part One

by: Roger Smalling, D.Min

Excerpt from Smalling's book, Unlocking Grace


A favorite myth of lost humanity is the assumption of the moral neutrality of man’s will. The sinner imagines himself in a neutral position, equally suspended between good and evil, with the ability to choose between the two whenever it suits him.

A sinner usually presupposes the ability to repent and come to God any time he wishes. He perceives himself in total control with regard to all moral questions, and the master of his own destiny. He sees himself in possession of a faculty called Free Will, and defines it as an impartial ability and right to chose whatever suits him.

All religious groups affirm a doctrine of Free Will by some definition. But they differ in the meaning of the word free. Clearly our will possesses limitations, so it is not ‘free’ in every conceivable respect. We cannot sprout wings and fly by willing it, nor do we augment our intelligence to the level of Einstein by force of will.  As we quickly discover in moral struggles, our will is sometimes our friend, and sometimes a determined enemy. It is limited in some respects, but not in others.

Some groups feel that the Free Will of man escaped the effects of the fall and remained morally neutral, as the only faculty that remained unaffected. Others assert that the will was weakened by sin, but that it continues to possess the ability to contribute to salvation. Then again, others affirm that sin dominates all human faculties, and that the sinner is incapable of seeking salvation without an effectual work of grace.

Our view of divine grace will ultimately depend on what we assume about the abilities and limitations of the will. Consequently, it is imperative to define carefully its abilities and limitations.

We affirm the following:

  1. All aspects of the human organism, before the New Birth, are dominated by sin and controlled by Satan.

  2. The will of man, also dominated by sin, will never desire salvation nor accept Christ on its own initiative without a miracle of the grace of God.

  3. The New Birth is a sovereign act of God, in which the sinner is entirely passive, until God grants the gift of saving faith. It is not because we have faith that we are born again. We have faith because we are born again. The human will is not the cause of the New Birth.

The word free is the source of most of the confusion in this discussion because of its ambiguity. Free can man ability, or permission o even neutrality. It is important therefore to define our terms before entering such a dialogue. In the face of biblical teachings, certain definitions of the term Free Will are valid, and others are not.

It is biblically valid to affirm free will in the following senses:

  1. The ‘right’ to choose the good ...though the ‘right’ to do a thing does not prove the ability to do so.

  2. The power to choose in morally neutral matters, such as what we will eat for breakfast.

  3. The power to choose between certain external actions of a good or bad nature, such as whether to give to a charity, or deciding to read the Bible instead of a pornographic magazine.

  4. The ability to participate in certain religious practices, such as attending meetings, learning hymns, praying, etc.

But it is unscriptural to affirm Free Will in the following senses:

  1. The ability of the sinner to repent and accept Christ, entirely on his own initiative.

  2. The ability to contribute anything at all, by deed or thought, which could attract the grace of God.

  3. Moral neutrality.

  4. The faculty of a person’s being which ultimately governs his choices.